Above: Image © alengo, iStockphoto

The Star Trek universe started on a TV show. Beginning in the 1960s, viewers could “explore strange new worlds”, “seek out new life and new civilizations”, and “boldly go where no man has gone before”. And they could do all this from the comfort of their living room! But there was one catch. To fully experience the Star Trek universe, people had to watch the show.

Sight is the dominant sense in humans. Most people depend on sight more than any other sense to interact with the world. But not everyone can fully use their sense of sight. In 2014, about 285 million people worldwide had impaired vision. Thirty-nine million of them, including four million Canadians, were considered blind. Fortunately, modern medicine is finding ways to improve and even restore sight!

Did you know? 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. The first episode of the original television series aired on September 8, 1966.

Fixing impaired vision

Impaired vision is much more common than blindness. However, a new technology being developed in British Columbia may be able to restore perfect vision in people who require glasses, contact lenses, or laser eye surgery.

The Ocumetic Bionic Lens looks like a clear, flexible button. Each lens is custom-made based on a 3-D model of the patient’s eye. The implanted lens bonds with the muscles in the eye. It only requires 1/100th of the muscle energy that your natural eye lens would need to see the same image.

As you get older, your vision gets worse. As a result, you can eventually develop cataracts. But the Ocumetic Bionic Lens could let you maintain perfect vision for a lifetime. And since your eyes won’t have to compensate for deteriorating vision, you’ll never get cataracts! Clinical trials have begun and the company hopes to start selling the product by 2018.

Did you know? Your eyes see the world upside-down. Your brain flips the image right-side up!

Restoring sight, Star Trek-style

Geordi La Forge was the chief engineer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was born blind, but wore a visor that let him see. Eventually, ocular implants restored his vision. Both of these ideas have inspired treatments for conditions like retinitis pigmentosa, a type of hereditary blindness where eyesight degenerates over time.

What exactly happens when you see? First, light bounces off of an object and travels back into your eye. There, the light is detected by two types of cells: rods and cones. These cells send signals to your brain, which interprets the information. In many eye diseases, rods and cones start to die. This prevents them from sending signals to your brain. And when your brain doesn’t receive the signals, you can’t see.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System (“Argus II”) is an implant, camera, and visor system that acts like a bionic eye. A bionic eye is a man-made device that helps improve or restore vision. The implant uses information from the camera to activate the light detection cells in your eye. In clinical trials, patients wearing the Argus II were able to detect motion, something they couldn’t do before!

Meanwhile, a device created by Retina Implant AG uses a tiny computer system implanted directly in the eye. The implant contains 1500 light sensors and connects to a device that sits behind the ear. It sends electrical pulses to the optic nerve so the wearer can see shapes and colours. These implants don’t provide crystal clear vision. However, clinical study participants have been able to detect light and even identify where the light is coming from.

Did you know? It can take as little as 13 milliseconds for your eyes to capture an image. However, parts of your brain may take a little longer to process the information.

A bright future for vision

Technology to improve or restore eyesight has become more than just a science fiction fantasy. Even Star Trek’s futuristic methods of improving vision weren’t nearly as advanced as some of the technologies available today. Hopefully, someday everyone will be able to fully use their sense of sight!

Learn More!

About vision and vision loss:

What is retinitis pigmentosa? (2015)
American Academy of Ophthalmology

Visual impairment and blindness (2014)
World Health Organization

Taking care of your vision (2012)
K. Kasaian, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

Vision loss in Canada (2011)
National Coalition for Vision Health

About technologies that can improve or restore vision:

Alison Müller


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